Years ago, planning commissioner Shannon Matson was looking to build a house in downtown Renton. She considered adding a unit above the detached garage that could be a small dwelling for separate renters, commonly known as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU).
But it added 35 percent to the cost of construction and didn’t pencil out, she told commissioners and city staff at the Sept. 4 Planning Commission meeting. Her story isn’t uncommon.
Renton has been pushing for more ADUs in the city, but the tricky permitting process and high fees have kept developers away.
The city has met with 55 potential applicants since 2009, but only six ADUs have been built. The city allows detached ADUs in the Resource Conservation (RC) zone up to the Residential 14 dwellings per acre (R-14) zone.
In 2017, the city of Renton cut the ADU permitting fees in half to encourage builders. Last year, council extended those fee waivers into the end of 2020, after applications doubled. But construction is still in the single digits, and other barriers remain.
“We haven’t been able to move the needle, despite those efforts,” City Assistant Planner Katie Buchl-Morales said.
And it’s not for lack of interested developers— Buchl-Morales said when she’s at the front counter, most of the questions she gets are related to ADUs. She said folks are interested, and looking at what Renton is able to offer after seeing coverage of Seattle’s work to increase ADUs in its city.
City staff are also wary of statewide ADU legislation that could be reintroduced in the next cycle. The city’s Community and Economic Development Department staff hope to both get a jump start on any future statewide regulations and speed up the permitting for developers by proposing changes to the ADU permitting process. Staff presented the changes at the Sept. 4 meeting.
ADUs would no longer require a conditional use permit (CUP), and instead would require the same over-the-counter permit of single-family homes. A CUP costs $1,540 and has a review process, including public notice, that can take up to eight weeks.
But this change also means ADU’s must now meet residential design standards, which give those units similar standards to the houses on the lot. City staff also proposed adding new size, location and parking requirements.
At the Sept. 4 Planning Commission meeting, Matson told city staff she was concerned the new regulations appeared to put more restrictions on ADUs, not less. She said it appeared to be trading off regulations instead of simplifying them.
Buchl-Morales said the goal of moving from a CUP to a residential design standard is that it speeds up the process while keeping ADUs consistent with the neighborhood character.
Maintaining neighborhood character while offering ADU size flexibility was important to city staff, Buchl-Morales said.
For neighbors of ADUs, city staff said these regulations ensure the unit has a similar style to the main structure, while keeping it proportionally smaller. In effect, keeping it “accessory.”
“People don’t want density for the sake of density if it’s not compatible with the neighborhood,” Department Administrator Chip Vincent said at the meeting.
Buchl-Morales has previously looked at how ADUs can benefit aging populations, before she even started at Renton. Today’s local population, which needs more affordable housing and alternatives to purchasing a single family home, benefit from more of these units, she said. Some might the single family lifestyle on a smaller scale.
“It paves the way for more affordable housing opportunities,” Buchl-Morales said.
Increasing these units is also part of Renton’s strategy to increase affordable housing, as prices continue to rise. Northwest Multiple Listing Service’s August housing statistics show Renton home prices up from last year, ranging from 3.6 to 8.9 percent increase.
If these ADU regulation changes are approved, it still might not be enough. When city staff and the developer look at feasibility and pre-application meetings, that’s when the fees create a deterrent. Someone could be thousands of dollars in the hole before architecture and construction fees even start, even with the fees cut in half, Buchl-Morales said.
At the Sept. 4 meeting, Vincent told commissioners he’s in talks with the mayor’s office about the possibility of reducing the fees altogether, which is not part of these proposed changes.
In the same meeting, Vincent said 10 years ago when this began, they were hesitant to allow ADUs— some commissioners and staff at the time thought it would cause an influx. That fear is reflected in the city limit of 50 units a year, something that is planned to be removed with the new changes.
“When someone is perusing our website and sees the cap, it raises a red flag. They don’t know if we’ve reached our limit this year, when we actually haven’t issued that many (total),” Buchl-Morales said.
As the city sees more successful ADUs around the state, it helped change the narrative. Buchl-Morales said the goal is to take successful regulations and make them fit for Renton.
The Planning Commission has a public hearing on the proposed ADU regulations Oct. 2. More information is at rentonwa.gov.